Bamboozled: Next of kin gets runaround on death certificates

Dealing with the death of a loved one can be a paperwork nightmare.BB branding

No matter how well the deceased had his or her affairs in order, surviving relatives are often left with a mess. Before anything can be done, the person handling the estate needs copies of death certificates.

Cynthia Bowker needed death certificates for her mom, Elizabeth Light, who died at age 73 on Jan. 5, 2010, under hospice care in Newark.

Rather than obtain the death certificates she requested and paid for, Bowker got a headache.

“I am having a problem getting reimbursement for death certificates that I paid for and never received from the Newark City Hall Bureau of Vital Statistics,’’ said Bowker in an e-mail from her Tennessee home. “The situation with my mother’s passing is stressful enough without this added aggravation.”

101310Even with proof of payment, Bowker couldn’t find relief. Here’s how it happened.

On Feb. 22, 2010, Bowker sent a letter to Newark’s Bureau of Vital Statistics. She requested 10 copies of her mother’s death certificate, and enclosed a Western Union money order for $61.

With the request, Bowker enclosed her power of attorney paperwork and other required personal identification, she said.

Weeks and weeks passed and Bowker grew impatient. In early April, Bowker said she called the Bureau of Vital Statistics to ask for progress. She was told the bureau had no record of receiving her request.

Next, Bowker visited Newark in person. She said she went to Newark City Hall and paid cash for 10 copies of the death certificate on April 8. Death certificates in hand, she’d finally be able to take care of her mom’s affairs.

But she still had no answers about her initial request and payment.

Bowker then called Western Union to find out if the money order had been cashed.

“On April 15, 2010, I sent a tracer request and a check for $15 to Western Union,” she said, noting the $15 was a charge to research whether or not the check had been cashed. “They in turn sent me a copy of the cashed money order, which had been marked ‘For Deposit Only City of Newark Bureau of Vital Statistics.’ ” She sent a letter on June 10 to Newark Mayor Cory Booker, explaining she had already paid cash for additional death certificates and was looking for a refund on her original money order payment. She said she enclosed the history of her case, along with proof that the her check had been cashed.

“I am disturbed that the original package containing mine and my mother’s personal information and the money order was misplaced/discarded/stolen in this department,’’ she said in her letter. “That said, I am requesting reimbursement for the $61.00 for the money order and $15.00 for the tracer action for a total of $76.00.’’

She received a letter from the mayor’s office a few days later saying her case was referred to the proper people at the Bureau of Vital Statistics. A month later, on July 12, she received a letter from the bureau’s registrar, LaGuanda Frazier.

It said: “I have conducted an investigation into your issues and found that your request was processed for 10 death certificates totaling $61.00.” Frazier wrote the certificates were mailed March 10, 2010, and said if Bowker hadn’t received them, she should contact his office and he would replace them.

On July 22, 2010, Bowker responded, explaining she no longer needed those death certificates.

She merely wanted a refund for the ones she never received.

She again requested reimbursement for the $61 money order and the $15 Western Union tracer fee.

“It’s not $7,600. It’s 76 bucks,’’ Bowker said.

“I’ve already spent more time than it’s worth, but it’s the principle.’’

By early September, there was still no word, so she contacted Bamboozled.


We called Newark City Hall and asked for a review of this reader’s situation.

The result? Refund due. Refund coming, said LaGuanda Frazier, registrar of the Bureau of Vital Statistics.

She said Bowker should receive a check — for her original fee and the $15 for the Western Union investigation — in 30 to 60 days.

Bowker was happy to hear the news.

“That’s awesome,’’ she said. “It’s great. I’m upset that I had to go through all that over $76. It’s kind of embarrassing. But it’s awesome.’’

We’ll let you know when the check is received, and thanks to the City of Newark for following the paperwork trail and doing the right thing.


Bob Cmil of Annandale wrote to us about a recent banking experience.

He stopped into a bank branch — a bank where he doesn’t have an account — and asked the teller for change of a $100 bill. The teller asked if he had an account with the bank, and he said no.

“I was shocked when she refused to give me change for the bill,’’ Cmil wrote. “As far as I know, the words ‘legal tender’ still appear on the bill. What gives?’’

Great question.

“Banks have an obligation under the law to know who they’re doing business with. It’s a fiduciary responsibility,” said Kevin Mukri, spokesman for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates banks.

He said there are many varieties of financial crimes out there, and banks have to know their customers in case there’s ever a crime linked to a transaction. The bank was in the right to refuse.

“Banks need to protect themselves and their other customers,” he said.

Makes sense.